How Covid made me re-lose – and fall back in love with – New York

Sari Botton
·7 min read

In 2005, the year I turned 40, I moved upstate after living in New York City for 15 years, relinquishing a part of my identity I thought I never would.

I’d dreamt about being a writer in the electric city from the time I was a teen sneaking in by myself on the Long Island Rail Road, and people-watching all around Manhattan. I moved there in my mid-20s after a failed suburban starter marriage. Over the course of a blissfully stimulating but sometimes lonely decade-and-a-half there, I reinvented myself from a suburban dork to a city geek, a freelancer with a finger on the pulse of the vibrant arts and social scenes. It was where I became me.

Related: As the pandemic starts to recede, New York looks more divided than ever | Emma Brockes

The move upstate was a choice my husband and I made under duress. Newly married, we were getting kicked out of our 1,800 sq ft, ramshackle, under-market East Village loft, and couldn’t find so much as a studio in Flushing for as little as we’d been paying. We thought of ourselves as dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, the kind of people who, in no time flat, could conjure the fastest subway route between two points; who knew exactly where to find the perfect quick, cheap bite – and a bathroom to pee in – in any given neighborhood; who were on nodding terms with the anarchists we’d pass each day in Tompkins Square Park; who kept a mental running list of all the movies currently showing at Angelika Film Center, and knew which underground theater within it was most affected when the subway rumbled by. Initially, the idea of leaving the city behind felt like chopping off a limb. But losing our home after a drawn-out housing court case helped loosen our emotional grip. After a year of lawyers, and infighting among our tenants’ association, and the relentless losing battle against gentrification, moving upstate seemed like it offered a refreshing change.

We both had a connection to life in the Hudson Valley: my husband Brian was from Putnam county, and a few years before we met, I’d rented a room in Rhinebeck, while subletting my rickety E 13th Street tenement for ridiculous dotcom money. We shared a love for many of the small towns surrounded by mountains, forests and creeks. We were looking forward to growing our own food, canning, pot-lucking, composting, hiking, snowshoeing and exploring all the best swimming holes.

When we left the city, we landed first in tiny Rosendale, smack dab between New Paltz and Kingston. We adored it. Like us, many of its inhabitants were artsy, progressive weirdos, and often New York City transplants, too. We made a whole new life for ourselves with these new friends – a more pastoral version of our city existence – spending evenings watching movies or live theater in the town’s community-owned old school movie house, playing and listening to music at a tiny restaurant/venue started by former Brooklynites, frolicking in the Rondout creek, taking long walks on a variety of nearby trails. On weekday mornings, before sitting down to work in my home office, I’d either hit the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, with an entrance just up the road, or hike up a small mountain – Joppenbergh – the trailhead a short walk out my back gate.

Two years after our departure, LCD Sound System released New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down off the band’s Sound of Silver record, and it deeply resonated. One evening Brian and I took our ukuleles out to the backyard and learned to play it. The song became something of an anthem for a while.

After nine years, though, Rosendale – population 6,600 – started to feel too small for us, so in 2014 we relocated a few miles north to the city of Kingston – population 24,000. The move from small town to small, urban-feeling city – with more places to go and things to do, more people, more cultural diversity – helped me, somewhat, to combat burgeoning feelings of isolation and disconnection from the literary and media worlds I’d once been a part of. Being “extremely online”, particularly on Twitter, was a lifeline. (Say what you will about the ills of social media, but it let me stay connected and relevant, and helped me find work.)

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When we packed up and hauled our lives 90 miles north, I couldn’t have predicted that over the coming 16 years I’d come around to seriously missing the city, and with increasing urgency. Back then we were fed up with rapid gentrification – something that’s now causing a housing crisis in Kingston and the rest of the Hudson Valley, a problem we unwittingly helped usher in. Michel Gondry, then Matt Dillon, replaced us in our New York loft, each paying about four times the rent that we had. How ridiculous that seemed! Manhattan had grown too rich for our taste. Good riddance, we said.

But, alas. Now I buy lottery tickets at the bodega next store to my Kingston house, earmarking my winnings for a pied-à-terre studio somewhere in Cobble Hill, or Fort Greene, or the West Village, or Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood I once never imagined I’d want to live in. While everyone in the five boroughs has been destination-dreaming about the Hudson Valley, I’ve been cruising Zillow and StreetEasy, losing myself in elaborate fantasies about a part-time city life, located in apartments I’ll probably never be able to rent or buy. There I am, hanging out on the stoop with my neighbors, over coffee and the New York Times, on summer Sunday mornings. There I am, walking everywhere, each weekend discovering new secret nooks in Chinatown, Red Hook, Ditmas Park, Sunnyside, you name it. Now I’m walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, like Brian and I did after we eloped to the Municipal Building, on my way to meeting up with friends for karaoke.

The pandemic has worsened my longing, making it impossible for me to engage in one of my favorite homesick-for-New-York stopgaps: traveling there for work, something that allows me to feel like a professional in a way that working from home upstate never has, while also letting me spend time recreating in the place I adore most in all the world.

Before lockdown, every few months, I’d lead weekend intensive essay-writing workshops at Catapult, on Broadway at 26th Street, and get myself an inexpensive hotel room nearby through a discount site. By day I’d get to geek out over one of my favorite subjects – longform essay writing – and in the early mornings, evenings and during my lunch breaks, lose myself in the city I yearned to live in from the time I was a kid in a Long Island suburb visiting older cousins in their scruffy, rent-stabilized digs. I’d walk and window-shop four hours, eat Vietnamese noodles and other foods I’ve been unable to find upstate, and sing my heart out to complete strangers in karaoke bars.

I won’t be leaving Kingston any time soon. I love living here. But I realize now that I also need to regularly spend time in New York in order to feel like me. To have more options for movies, plays, and exhibits to see in any given week than I could possibly ever get to in a year–plus the option of skipping it all to people-watch instead. To be lulled by the ambient hum of communing, alone together, with a bunch of strangers I’m not directly interacting with. To have my mind sent in a million interesting directions by just observing everyone out on the streets.

•••

As Covid vaccines become ever more available, people are cataloguing the first things they look forward to once it’s safe to free ourselves from lockdown. At the top of my list is scheduling a work weekend in Manhattan – my first since late January 2020.

I’ll lead a writing workshop, interacting with my students in the flesh, rolling up our sleeves around a big table rather than over the Brady Bunch virtual grid of Zoom I’ve felt captive to for the past year. Between workshop sessions I’ll wander, serendipitously, by subway and by foot, from one neighborhood to another, feeling electrified by the sheer multiplicity of everything. And I’ll spend my evenings at Sid Gold’s Request Room. I’ll trade LCD Soundsystem for Rodgers and Hart, choosing I’ll Take Manhattan for my first song.

  • Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (Seal Press; new and revised) is out now